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ISIS, Islam, and Islamophobia: Interview with Caner Dagli

The debate on “Islamic fundamentalism” has turned immensely heated and intense in the West, especially as the terrorist group ISIS continues its relentless campaign of mass killing and executing non-Muslims and threatens to take the fight to the European capitals. ISIS has played a central role in creating skepticism towards Islam in the West that the religion preaches violence.

It was about 4 months ago that a deadly shooting spree at the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris claimed 12 lives, saddened millions of French people over the dramatic loss and also incited a new wave of Islamophobic attacks across Europe. Several mosques were set on fire and vandalized, death threats were sent to the houses of Muslim imams, arson attacks against Muslim communities rose sharply and the corporate media propped up the hype that Muslim extremists make up the lion share of Islam’s followers.

A noted Islamic scholar says he is convinced that ISIS is not a representative of Muslims and this is what the public in the West understands, as well. Prof. Caner Dagli says there are people, groups and even governments that benefit from the vilification of Muslims and continued demonization of them, while Muslims in practice pose no threat to the Western values, including multiculturalism.

To discuss the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments, or what has come to be known as “Islamophobia” in the United States and Europe, the media portrayal of Muslims and their sacred beliefs and the relations between the Western communities and the Muslim world, I talked to Prof. Caner Dagli.

Caner K. Dagli is an Associate Professor of Islamic studies at the College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He had previously taught at Roanoke College in Virginia. He has been a special advisor to the Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan for interfaith affairs. Prof. Dagli is a proponent of dialog between Muslims, Christians and Jews and has published several articles and books on this topic.

As a scholar who has studied the relationship between the Muslim world and the West, what do you think is the root for the growth of Islamophobia in Europe and North America in the recent years? Why don’t the political leaders in the West take action to protect their Muslim population and their sacred beliefs?

There is more than one reason, and moreover the reasons are not all the same in different places. It’s difficult to be comprehensive without going on too long. In the United States, the anti-Muslim sentiment is very often contrived or is a kind of stand-in for other forms of bigotry that have become essentially taboo in public life. There are various forms of opportunism. When Barack Obama was elected, Islam became something to hang around the neck of a non-white president with an exotic name, and fear of Islam was stoked as an electoral maneuver. None of the activists and media figures who hinted that Obama is Muslim or might be Muslim actually could have believed it. Instead, they used it to scare the gullible among their voter and donor base, first by associating Obama over and over again with Islam, and then by hyping Islam as a danger, with the effect of drawing political support for Obama’s enemies. This propaganda also capitalized on disguised racism. Since it would be unacceptable in 21st century America to openly make an issue of the president’s race, one could channel that animosity through the language of a Muslim threat.

They even tried this with Huma Abedin, the right hand of Hilary Clinton, chanting “Muslim Brotherhood” in connection with her over and over to use the fear of Islam as a way of undermining Hilary Clinton.

There is also economic opportunism. Hi-tech industry in America, sometimes called the military-industrial complex but which is far more than that, is a major sector of the economy that would go bankrupt without government contracts and ongoing public support. It is politically so powerful that it is hard to distinguish it from the state. How does one justify the gigantic expenditures on weapon systems and on a military that is as large as the next two dozen militaries combined? How does one justify a worldwide network of at least seven hundred military bases? During the Cold War, most of this justification came from global communism, but starting from the 70’s, the threat of Muslim fundamentalism was added to the list of reasons why we need to spend so much on defense. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the threat of political Islam seamlessly took over as the great threat requiring tremendous expenditures. Today, the propaganda has been refined to the point that the word “terrorism” has become internalized as “violence by Muslims we don’t like.”

Thus another kind of opportunism is the rise of various sorts of “terrorism experts” who are the retail salesmen to hi-tech industry’s wholesale marketers. After 9/11 especially, huge amounts of federal funds were allocated for various kind of law enforcement initiatives and among these was the necessity for “expertise” about Islamic extremism. From the FBI down to local law enforcement, many individuals have made a lot of money selling themselves as authorities on Islam and giving Power-Point presentations full of nonsense about Islam and Muslims. Because they are being invited to give talks by law enforcement, their prestige is enhanced and their fear-mongering adds to the general anti-Muslim feeling.

Another important factor is Israel. In the United States the establishment consists essentially of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. This was not always the case, not even two generations ago, but it is now. The single most important and uniting cause for American Jews is support for Israel. Jacob Neusner, one of the most important and prolific authors in the field of Judaic studies, even referred to a particular form of Judaism he called, “The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption,” which he distinguished from traditional rabbinical Judaism. The “redemption” is Israel, and indeed the remembrance of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry and support for the state of Israel are the twin foundations of Jewish religious, cultural life in America, I would say. Others might have a different view. Now, it is common for Jews in America to understand Israel’s main threat to be Muslims – the Palestinians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, and their devotion to the integrity of Israel has led many – not all – in the Jewish establishment and groups like AIPAC to believe that what is bad for Islam is good for Israel. This belief has resulted in a campaign to emphasize the threat from Islam both in Israel and in America, with the hope of convincing Americans that America and Israel stand together against the very same threat, and also to ensure that Israel’s brutal occupation of the Palestinians and its invasions of its neighbors are always understood as unavoidable acts against an irrational, unyielding, terrifying threat, rather than as war crimes against innocent people. As long as Islam and Muslims are uniquely dangerous, one can pursue devotion to the state of Israel without guilt or reservation because they are simply fighting the good fight. The effect of all this is that an important part of the American establishment considers Muslims to be the main threat against their emotionally most sacred cause. Smashing Palestinians doesn’t hurt anyone in the establishment, so it’s allowed to continue.

Pictured (L-R): Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Austria’s Harald Vilimsky, France’s Marine Le Pen, Netherland’s Geert Wilders and Belgium’s Gerolf Annemans. (Facebook)

Historically, of course, there has always been theological competition between Christianity and Islam. In the late 19th century, missionaries and Christian activists would have directed their animosity against Catholics and Muslims as their greatest spiritual adversaries, though the anti-Catholic rhetoric has now largely disappeared. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries there was a significant mainline Protestant effort to missionize the Islamic world, largely unsuccessful. But in recent times one is seeing a rise in a different brand of Christian evangelical religion that emphasizes eschatology and the end times, and sees Israel and its conflict with Muslims as a part of the events leading to the return of Christ. I should note that the fate of Jews who do not later convert to Christianity in this vision is rather grim, and thus one can consider this brand of Christianity as loving Israel – since it must be established for Jesus to return, but hating Jews. In any event, for them the more grave and dangerous Muslims are, the more real their theological expectations become.

This has all been rather well-documented in the last several years. Several very good books and many think tank papers, not to mention serious journalism and even a scholarly journal devoted to the subject, have come out documenting what is sometimes called the “Islamophobia industry” which over the last decade has been funded, at a conservative estimate, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. None of this is really a secret anymore, but since Muslims are not politically powerful and have no real cultural or economic clout, there is no one to put a systematic check on this activity. It’s astounding what one can do so long as one is not going against the interests of the main groups in the establishment.

In many cases I think people are rationalizing their own privilege and then unscrupulous people come in to help them assuage their guilt. Most people even in the establishment are not sitting around, cackling in dark rooms rubbing their hands together. They probably really believe that Muslims are uniquely dangerous and are an existential threat. If they didn’t, they would have to look at themselves in the mirror and acknowledge that they are killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying entire countries for no good reason. So, along come the experts who will paint a picture of the world – for a fee – that shows that the violence that my side commits is just and noble, and that my side deserves all the good things it has, and all is well with the world. But that holds true for any kind of bigotry or prejudice.

In Europe there is another factor to add. In the United States, most Americans still don’t personally know a Muslim and much of what they know comes from the press or social media, but Muslims have been a sizable minority in many European countries for generations. The racism and class consciousness that Americans direct against African-Americans and Latinos is directed by white Europeans against Muslim minorities: the Arabs in France, the Turks in Germany, the South Asians in Britain, and so forth. In the United States, Muslims are more educated and affluent than the average American, while in Europe they are less educated, less affluent, and definitely more ghettoized, and so social dynamics play out differently.

In the recent years, Muslims have been offended on a number of occasions when they found their religious beliefs, Scripture and prophet being ridiculed by Western journalists, filmmakers and even politicians such as Geert Wilders, the Dutch MP who produced the movie Fitna and accused Quran of inciting violence and preaching the murder of innocent citizens. How is it possible for Muslims to respond to such attacks against what they fundamentally hold to be sacred and revered?

There’s a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to these questions of denigration and free speech. The Danish newspaper that commissioned and published those caricatures of the Prophet had refused, three years earlier, to publish similar caricatures about Jesus on the grounds that they would offend people. The editors of Charlie Hebdo, who certainly did not deserve to get murdered, were no champions of “free speech” and had previously fired an editor for quipping that Nicolas Sarkozy’s son was converting to Judaism to climb the social ladder. A racist shot and paralyzed the American pornographer Larry Flynt for depicting interracial sex. Did we all feel the need to say, “I am Hustler” like “Je suis Charlie”?

So, Muslims can point out the hypocrisy. In the United States, where free speech is actually the law, one can work to educate the public, as for example Jews have about the Holocaust, about how sacred the Quran and the Prophet is to them. In Europe, where certain kinds of speech are in fact criminalized, Muslims can work politically to level the field and make sure that if others’ sacred symbols are protected, theirs are too.

There are many commonalities between Muslims, Christians and Jews in terms of their belief in a unique God, the origins of creation and the universe, the role of the prophets, the importance of Scripture, etc. However, we often find Muslims and Christians in conflict and at loggerheads. Why can’t they realize unity and peaceful coexistence?

It is hard to comment in general. Of course all religions have cynical people in them, or zealots, or ignoramuses, or bigots. In the case of Christianity and Islam, one has to recall that for several centuries, before the age of the navigators, Christendom had no other neighbor other than the Islamic world. There is a long history of political and theological rivalry.

You’ve given advice to the Jordanian government on interfaith dialog and religious affairs. Do you agree that the major Western powers also need advice and guidelines on how to promote interfaith dialog, religious tolerance and reduce religious hatred and discrimination against the religious minorities living in their communities?

It depends on the country. In most cases the role of governments should be to keep things fair and not privilege one group over another. But should governments “promote” interfaith dialogue? The power establishments in Western countries seem to barely have a handle on what religion is, never mind promoting dialogue. But on the question of discrimination against minorities, most countries simply need to put into practice the ideals they claim to espouse. Their populations need to push them to do this.

As we see, the terrorist group ISIS is practicing the worst forms of violence, mass murder, kidnapping and slavery under the banner of Islam. Muslims across the world have been united in condemning its atrocities. How is it possible to raise the public awareness about the real origins of ISIS and make the citizens of non-Muslim nations understand that ISIS is not a representative of Muslims and their worldview?

It’s difficult to raise such awareness because major powers have had no small role to play in creating a vacuum ISIS stepped in to fill, this Frankenstein monster of extreme Wahhabism, Sunni tribalism, former Baathists, and psychotic adventurers. For years, powers like the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have been running various proxy wars in the region, which has contributed greatly to Sunni-Shiite mutual animosity and bloodletting. America disbanded the Iraqi army and “de-Bathified” the country, and now we see that former army officers are running ISIS military operations. We should ask ourselves whether ISIS’ surprising military effectiveness would have been possible if those army officers had kept their jobs. Iran and Saudi Arabia should stop stoking sectarian conflict. A generation ago, many of the people who are at each others’ throats now could not have told you if their neighbor was a Sunni or Shiite. The United States bears the greatest burden. It invaded Iraq on false grounds, destroyed the country, and left it in ruins.

There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq before the Americans invaded, but, as was predicted by Western intelligence agencies, there is now. One should also mention the tremendous hypocrisy of condemning ISIS for decapitating people: have you ever seen what a bomb does to a person? Many children were decapitated by remote control in Gaza by American weapons fired from Israel. I grant that there’s something especially horrifying about a person who can literally move his arm back and forth to saw off someone’s head as they scream, rather than pressing a joystick button from miles away. But the difference is morally trivial. Incidentally, our main ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, whose king was mourned in America like some great figure, regularly kills people by cutting off their heads. Also, America still kills people by injecting them with poisons that sometimes cause them to writhe in agony for tens of minutes before they finally expire. If some decapitations are all right, then what are we really talking about?

I think most people understand quite well that ISIS is not representative of Islam. As to why they would intentionally fuzz the boundary, as for example Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu so ham-fistedly does, one can go back to my answer about the rise of Islamophobia and the benefits that accrue to some if we all believe Muslims are ultra-dangerous.

It’s being widely claimed in the West that Islam is a religion of fanaticism and extremism that condones and even endorses the killing of the people of other faiths. As a scholar on Islamic studies, what’s your response to that? Is Islam really responsible for the terrorist attacks that take place on the soil of the Western countries, including the recent bloody shooting spree in Paris?

There’s an easy answer to that. If it were true that Islam calls for the killing of people of other faiths, then how is it that there have been Christians and Jews living in Muslim-controlled lands for the last 1400 years? If Muslims were actually interested in killing them, they had total power over them for centuries and could have easily done so, and there would not have been a single Christian or Jew left anywhere in the Middle East. The Jews who left Muslim countries did so only after the founding of Israel in 1948. What were they doing there until then if Muslims were bent on killing them?

It’s an important point. So, rights come with responsibilities. It’s not possible to cite freedom of speech as a pretext to insult the emotions of millions of people. Isn’t it interesting that Muslims have always been on the receiving end of the attacks by the media and the entertainment industry on their sanctities, and it’s rarely possible to find an instance of Muslims mocking Jesus Christ or the Bible in their writings, movies, cartoons, magazines or songs?

Muslims do not do this because respecting Christ and even the Bible is part of their faith. The Prophet taught Muslims not to follow the Bible but not to denigrate it either. Even if they did [so], Muslims are not occupying multiple Western countries and drone bombing weddings under dubious pretexts. One cannot simply reduce the question of denigration to “free speech” or “freedom to offend.” Actually Muslims have a fairly robust history of satire and comedy and some hilarious religious jokes, but these are not the strong mocking the weak or perpetrators reviling their victims.